Q: I was reading the King James Bible and came across this passage in Romans 7:2: “but if the husband be dead, she is loosed from the law.” Can you explain why “be” is used this way? What would be the proper usage in standard English today?
A: Let’s begin with all of Romans 7:2 in the King James Version of the Bible: “For the woman which hath an husband is bound by the law to her husband so long as he liveth; but if the husband be dead, she is loosed from the law of her husband.”
In the second half of the verse (“but if the husband be dead, she is loosed from the law of her husband”), “be” is used in the subjunctive mood to express a hypothetical situation. In modern English, the subjunctive here would be expressed with “were,” not “be”: “but if the husband were dead, she would be freed from the law of her husband.”
However, the subjunctive is less common now than it was in Old English, Middle English, and the early Modern English of the King James Version (written from 1604 to 1611). Today that passage might instead be written in the indicative mood, the verb form used to make an ordinary statement: “but if the husband is dead, she is free from the law of her husband.”
These days, the subjunctive is primarily used for three purposes: (1) to express a wish: “She wished that her husband were less demanding”; (2) to express an “if” statement about a condition that’s contrary to fact: “If he were less demanding, she’d be a lot happier”; (3) to express that something is being asked, demanded, ordered, suggested, and so on: “He suggested that she wear high heels to the party.”
In Old English, the language of the Anglo-Saxons, the subjunctive was used much more broadly: to express doubt, unreality, potential, wishes, desires, requests, commands, prohibitions, obligations, theories, and conjectures. As the subjunctive began waning in Middle English, modal auxiliary verbs like “can,” “could,” “may,” “might,” “must,” “shall,” “should,” “will,” and “would” stepped in to express many of these intentions and beliefs.
So the hypothetical mood, or attitude, of the speaker in those three subjunctive sentences above could be expressed in declarative sentences by using modal auxiliary verbs: (1) “She wished that her husband would be less demanding”; (2) “If he could be less demanding, she’d be a lot happier”; (3) “He suggested that she should wear high heels to the party.”
We’ve written several times on the blog about modal auxiliary verbs, most recently in 2018. And we’ve written often about the subjunctive, including a post in 2010 that discusses the use of the verb “be” over the years.
In the 2018 post, we note that modality can be expressed with adverbs, adjectives, and nouns as well as with modal verbs. We also discuss the archaic use of “be” in place of the plural “are” (as in “the powers that be”). And in the 2010 post, we note that the subjunctive is losing ground in British English, though it’s holding its own (for now) in American English.
We’ve also pointed out that some archaic uses of the subjunctive have survived on both sides of the Atlantic, such as “lest she forget” (instead of “forgets”), “God forbid” (instead of “forbids”), “come what may” (instead of “comes”), “suffice it to say” (instead of “suffices”), and “long live the Queen” (instead of “lives”).